Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

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By Philip Pearce

THE HAMILTON PHENOMENON has launched us headlong into the roaring waters of the off-beat, on-point American History Musical. Latest local example is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which just opened at The Western Stage. Where Hamilton is a big, loving, panoramic celebration of our nation’s birth pangs, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson offers a far more raucous, goofy and irreverent look at a moment in US history. It’s about the blustering and stumbles of our populist seventh president as he takes up arms against an allegedly snooty out-of-touch Washington ruling elite.

Sound familiar? Well, yes, and writers Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) and Alex Timbers (book) even transmogrify Old Hickory into a media-obsessed rock star with a big teen following. This adoring fan base pressures him to launch an attack on the big, bad East Coast political establishment and at first he resists their blandishments, “I’m not that Guy!” But as he taps deeper into a rich vein of unthinking adulation, “Populism, Yeah, Yeah!”, it’s clear he won’t hold out for long, “I’m so that Guy!” He’s played by Ken Allen Neely with a roistering gusto that infects the entire cast and produces just under two hours of almost nonstop comic energy on the Hartnell Main Stage.

Friedman and Timbers have created an Andy Jackson who is nothing if not bloody. For starters, he and his frontier ladylove Rachel take their unconventional nuptial vows in a blood bath of exchanged bodily fluids. Unconventional or not—she’s already married to somebody else—it’s Rachel who becomes the only stabilizing force for mature family life in the face of all the juvenile excesses of Jackson’s budding political career. She’s played with vigorous commitment by Megan Root.

Just as bloody a politician as he is a bridegroom, Jackson spends a lot of his early political career taking potshots at political opponents or at almost any small annoyance that crosses his path. An early victim is Cheryl Games, in a wonderfully loony portrayal of a schoolmarmish narrator. She spouts details of Jackson’s early career with such relentlessly smarmy adulation that it’s no surprise when AJ decides to knock her out of the action in a casual walk-by shooting. She drags herself off stage, presumably in search of a first aid kit, returns later on to put in her two cents and is finally eternally offed with a straight shot.

It’s a show marked by that brand of screwball surprises. Games’ narrative duties are taken over by some Jacksonian saloon gals headed by the dynamic Jill Miller, supported by beautiful Hanne Tonder and a small brunette whirlwind named Chloe Babbes.

As you might guess, Jackson also wages his own private and unofficial battles against the “encroachment” of English and Spanish “foreigners” into US territory. He’s even madder at those pesky Indians and uses trickery, wampum, diplomacy and war to push a succession of southeastern tribes out of long centuries and vast expanses of their homeland. Accompanying all of this wheeling and dealing is a fresh take on the “10 Little Indians” nursery rhyme, sung with dark acerbic relish by Babbes, who later takes on the role of an Indian orphan adopted by the unpredictably compassionate Jackson during one of his Native American skirmishes.

The forces of Washington elitism are also on hand, played with a lot of satiric dash, foolery and vocal excitement by Cameron Eastland as Martin Van Buren, Edie Flores as Henry Clay, Josh Kaiser as John Calhoun, Joshua Reeves as James Monroe and Dan Druff  (is that his real name?) as John Quincy Adams, who finagles the naive Jackson out of his apparently successful first crack at the presidency. Flores doubles as a troubled but loyal Native American supporter named Black Fox, who ultimately gets the shaft from AJ.

John Selover directs Jackson’s rise to political power in loud and blatant slapstick vignettes, half comic strip, half SNL comedy skits, illustrated by back-projected chunks of visual history. The mood is sardonic, the action broad, the language loud and vulgar and the effect very funny. Don Dally and three talented musicians do full justice to the blare and explosion of the emo rock score and even turn in brief, creditable acting performances as a gaggle of tourists being shown through the Jacksonian White House. Inevitably, the closing half hour, where the sophomoric hero discovers that campaigning is a heap easier than presiding over a fickle electorate with short attention spans, is less engaging, more talky and a bit of a drag.

But things pick up again when that smarmy deceased Storyteller returns, and you’ll have to see the show for yourself if you want to know how she manages to do that. What’s important is that she pinpoints the question lurking behind all the show’s crazy mixture of wisdom and foolery. Was Jackson one of our national heroes, or only a narcissistic gun-happy mass murderer?

The opening night audience was enthusiastic but small and that suggests that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson may not be everybody’s pot of gumbo. If so, it’s a pity. It’s another example of Western Stage’s effort to nudge us out of our play-going comfort zones and introduce us to some of the less-heralded treasures of theater today.

It plays weekends through July 29th.

Photo by Richard Green

Alice in Wonderland

By Jeffrey T HeyerAlice3-425x640

PAPER WING THEATRE is running Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the small Hoffman Street stage with a limited budget, an ambitious experiment for the company. It began with local-writer Mark Daniel Cunningham adapting the novel, with a few slight changes to bring the setting from Carroll’s nineteenth century to the present day. Amanda Platsis then directed a playful production which does everything a community theater presentation should do.

To whit: members of the community came not to see polished performances by professional actors but to watch people they know get up on stage and have anarchic fun with familiar characters. Sets, props and especially costumes—the latter by Cody Moore—were imaginative and extraordinarily colorful. The multi-armed and multi-legged caterpillar in particular brought appreciative laughter from the audience just by appearing.

Characterizations are simple and zany with all manner of clever creatures played by a well-coordinated mixture of children and adults. The youngsters Anne L. and Tazannah were especially cute as the hedgehogs. Kelsey Hansen-Pritchett showed us the most thoroughly realized physicality as the very feline Cheshire Cat.

Most performances are bold and energetic. Phil Livernois’ Walrus and Lj Brewer’s Carpenter split between them the speaking voice and trademark laugh of a Simpson’s character, adding a contemporary reference to their tale which was loudly appreciated by audience members. Lj Brewer is, in fact, the carpenter who shared construction and rigging responsibilities with Ron Moore, Douglas Duffy Johnson and Daniel Maroney.

Christopher Scott Sullinger, who has demonstrated considerable skill and talent in other theaters in the area, created a nice counterpart to the madness by giving amusingly understated interpretations of the Dodo and the King of Hearts. As Alice, Keira Maroney visibly enjoys being baffled and off-put by all the strange denizens of Wonderland. She is never overwhelmed or rendered colorless in comparison with the exotics surrounding her and deserves credit for such an accomplishment.

Of course the audience is a vital component of any theatrical experience and this one was an interesting mix in itself. There were people of all ages. Closer examination of one tiny pair of legs revealed them to belong to a doll sitting attentively in the seat beside her little girl owner. There was a clump of twenty-somethings whose laughter was particularly exuberant whenever they recognized a player—though how they could tell who was under all that makeup and costuming in many cases I cannot say. The rest of the audience smiled and chuckled in their own much more restrained manner, but it was evident as they filed out past the long line of performers just how much fun they had had.

A special function of this particular production was to give various children their first experience on the boards. I have no doubt that they will all remember this show fondly and perhaps go on to explore other aspects of the Wonderland that is theatre.

In short, if you want to see a blockbuster like Hamilton you need to visit San Francisco. Smaller local theatres can provide you with delicately nuanced performances, often by professional practitioners of the theatrical arts. What Paper Wing supplies is different but none the less valuable: true community theatre, where people from the community can get a taste of performance before a live audience of their peers. If watching such a show sounds fun to you, go enjoy Paper Wing’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.